Tesco Plc is investing 1 billion pounds ($1.5 billion) revamping its U.K. stores, with a focus on getting families to linger and spend more. Some mothers would rather their kids not go in them at all because of the men’s magazines on display there.
“I’ve got a little girl and I wouldn’t want her seeing” the so-called lads’ mags, property manager Hayley Kew, 31, said outside a Tesco store in London’s Islington neighborhood. Kew would be concerned if her daughter was “going to get sweets and there’s people with their boobs hanging out.”
Last week’s pledge by Britain’s largest retailer to stop selling minors publications such as Zoo, Loaded and Nuts and to cover up everything but their titles on the top shelf isn’t good enough, say women’s groups. They plan a day of protests on Aug. 24 to pressure Tesco into ditching the magazines, which are aimed at men under 30 and typically blend scantily clad women with a low-brow take on life, jokes and sport.
They “fuel sexist behavior and attitudes that underpin violence against women,” said Sophie Bennett, a spokeswoman for the ’Lose the Lads’ Mags’ campaign. While not classified by censors as pornography, a 2010 government report said they send a message that boys should be sexually dominant and objectify the female body.
Even though the group wants all retailers to ditch the titles, they singled out Tesco for its “crucial leadership role.” The scrap undermines efforts by the Cheshunt, England-based company to rebrand out-of-town hypermarkets as family friendly destinations in a bid to recover from last year’s first profit warning in two decades as shoppers defected to cheaper rivals and the Internet.
Tesco shares rose 1.6 percent in London trading today as the company said it was in talks to merge its stores in China. The stock has advanced 12 percent this year.
This “is flak it doesn’t need, particularly since it’s trying to ramp up its credentials as a family destination,” said Bryan Roberts, an analyst at Kantar Retail in London. “To get rid of the magazines wouldn’t have a material impact.”
Sales of all magazines account for less than 0.4 percent of U.K. supermarket revenue, ratings company Nielsen Holdings N.V. estimates. Tesco’s first revamped outlet, featuring family restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries, opens Aug. 12 in Watford, near London -- the week before planned protests.
“We’ve listened carefully to the concerns raised by the campaign groups, but our priority is to make sure we meet our customers’ needs,” Tesco said in an e-mail explaining why the magazines will stay put in more than 3,000 shops.
While popular British culture is best known outside the U.K. for exporting costume dramas like “Downton Abbey,” where pantaloons are considered scandalous dress, domestic fare has grown increasingly explicit. The first lads’ mags stormed Britain in the 1990s, packed with articles about beer, soccer and women, recalls Robert Lynam, head of display at media agency MEC in London.
“They weren’t always about boobs, but really new and fresh and captured the spirit of what was then the whole Britpop era,” he said. “They are now culturally irrelevant.”
Sales of IPC Media’s Nuts have slumped to about 80,000 copies a week, from more than 306,000 in 2005, Audit Bureau of Circulation figures show. Zoo shifts just over 44,000, from 260,000.
As sales dived, flesh on show surged.
In this week’s 82-page issue of Nuts, 31 -- including the cover -- are dominated by breasts. Almost 30 of Zoo’s 74 pages show women either topless or in bikinis. By contrast, GQ has a six-page swimsuit special in its 290-page August issue. All other women are fully clothed.
Zoo publisher Bauer Media Group, which also produces the monthly FHM, said it is “sensitive to the mood of the public” and would tone down its covers.
Last week featured the winner of the British version of “The Apprentice.” She’s wearing a bikini because her clothes were “fired,” the cover explains.
The campaign comes amid an increasing debate in the U.K. about the impact on children by an oversexualization of society and what some see as rising sexism.
There is a separate effort to get Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, Britain’s No. 1 daily newspaper, to drop its topless Page 3 Girl. While Murdoch in February tweeted that he was considering clothing the models again, they are still bare-breasted today. Even so, the Sun’s Irish edition yesterday said it has stopped showing topless women on page 3 of the paper, “to reflect the cultural differences in Ireland.”
IPC said men’s magazines like Nuts “celebrate women.” Bikini-clad reality-TV actresses on its cover were billed as “TV’s sexiest stars.” Inside one is asked: “How are the new boobs settling in?”
“The magazines have been in the shops for years and they cause no harm,” said Joanne Holding-Parsons, a mother from Essex. “They should concentrate on getting all the child porn off the Internet.”
Lads’ mags blur the lines between pornography and mainstream media, according to the 2010 Sexualization of Young People Review, which called for a mandatory code on retail displays to keep them from young people.
Tesco is alone among the nation’s top four grocers to sell the magazines without a screen known as a modesty bar. Last week it said only that they will be placed behind other titles on display. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Asda, J Sainsbury Plc and William Morrison Supermarkets Plc said they all installed the bars at least three years ago after customer complaints.
Co-Operative Group Ltd., the fifth-largest grocer, told Front, Loaded, Nuts and Zoo publishers to put their magazines in modesty bags by Sept. 9 or be excluded from its 4,000 outlets. Nuts won’t be complying, Editor Dominic Smith told the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday.
Some shoppers say such half measures miss the point.
“The image of women is horrible everywhere,” said freelance journalist Harry Harris, 24. “If you want to make a moral stand, don’t stock them.”